Q&A: Liz McIvor

Manager, Co-operative Heritage Trust

How was 2020 for the Co-operative Heritage Trust?

It was a year defined by uncertainty and having to make decisions quickly and often without the benefit of the support of the team dynamic that usually leads the activity we do. In the early period as we approached the first lockdown in the spring we were looking forward to a number of events and activities which could no longer go ahead safely. During the year our business plan for the Trust was no longer relevant and we had to look at ways to economise and make plans for a recovery of both audiences and revenues.

How did CHT support its members and communities?

The team initially worked to provide schools and families with free learning materials based on our heritage assets. We wanted to provide worksheets and lesson plans which could be used at home and which did not require expensive materials or for anything to be printed out. We were aware that as most children were out of formal classrooms, families had very different experiences based on the technology they had access to as well as simple costs such as art supplies and printer paper.

We tried to extend the information available on our website as people could no longer make a visit in person or access our archive collections in person for research. We were able to maintain a skeleton response service during lockdown, with limited access to materials requested and committed to digitising more material as well as recruiting remote archival volunteers who could help us transcribe orginal letter collections to make it easier for people to use them in the future.

Some of the ways we previously supported communities could no longer happen in the same way; clubs and smaller charities could no longer meet on our premises and our Pioneer Pantry scheme was set up as a food sharing membership service to support local people in 2019. As the rules of lockdown didnt allow us to operate, staff donated all remaining supplies to the Rochdale Food Bank to be distributed as emergency parcels in the first weeks of the lockdown.

What were the key challenges and how did you address them?

We were unable to access our museum collections held under partenrship agreement in Rochdale in order to work on them and develop new content. When access was finally possible, it was immediately followed by another period of restrictions. During this time, staff were unable to meet the targets initially set to work on this material and instead staff hours were used to support the outreach and collections work which could be done from the archive based in Manchester. This higlighted the need to expand and develop our collections facilities in the future.

Our archive facilities had been improved to be able to accomodate more researchers as well as placement students and our museum site had grown it’s visitor numbers in 2019. The expectation was that this would continue in 2020 through advance group bookings and the schools groups which we were looking forward to welcoming to Rochdale as part of our support of the National History Museum’s ‘Dippy on Tour’ show at Rochdale Riverside and Touchstones Museum. It was incredibly frustrating to lose this opportunity to engage with schools outside Rochdale and Greater Manchester who might not usually be in a position to visit the Pioneers Museum. As an alternative, the Trust has adapted it’s educational offer for 2021 to focus on delivery outside our small museum and can offer a range of educational workshops both digitally and on site in primary and secondary schools at competitive prices.

What are you most proud of?

During the extended period of closure, the Trust worked hard to minimise costs and cashflow in order to protect the future of the charity. This meant using the Jobs Retention Scheme and continuing to use it when it was extended to 2021. Staff on extended periods of furlough leave coped remarkably well with the uncertainty and isolation that this brought and were acclimatised gradually to returning to a very altered working environment which demanded a much more flexible approach to the roles they would normally perform as well as having to adapt communications to suit audiences. Knowing how important it is to maintain a presence, the staff prepared for and trialled a re-opening alongside the development of an in-house digital offer for the general public, educational groups as well as co-operative organisations to replace the booked visits and sessions which could no longer go ahead. Doing so has maintained an income stream and allowed us to find a way to continue to meet our objectives to share co-op history and promote learning.

What are your hopes for next year?

We as an organisation are hopeful that the Tier 3 restrictions in which we are currently placed will be able to be lifted in conjunction with vaccines being available and increasing public confidence in making visits and attending events once again. This ability to recover will allow us the make the changes we need to in order to be more relevant to local communities as well as those from further afield who share our co-operative identity and values. We particularly want to be able to explore our collections to make sure they are more reflective of and supportive of the story of BAME people in Britain and in the co-operative movement and are keen to work with the co-op secotr to collect some of these stories to reflect modern experiences. Although it may not be a popular subject at present, it is also very important to us to collect and preserve co-op’s experiences of and reaction to the pandemic. Looking back to find stories of how people coped in the 1918 Covid-type pandemic proved impossible as records were purposely not kept. We want this to be different in 2021 and are appealing to co-ops to preserve these resources to deposit with us as a unique contemporary collection.